Mary Williams (1883-1977) was a distinguished Welsh academic of modern languages. Known by her peers as a pioneer in the field of comparative medieval literature, more especially the origin and rise of the Arthurian Romances, she was awarded the Officier d’Academie and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French government in 1934.
Mary Williams was the elder daughter of Revd. John Williams and Mrs Jane Williams of Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire. She was the sister of Jennie Williams (Mrs R. Ruggles Gates) and was brought up in a Welsh Presbyterian household. Her great aunt joe died of cancer at the age of ten when she was only 3. Williams attended Aberystwyth Elementary School and then in 1895, at the age of twelve, was enrolled at Camden School for Girls and then the North London Collegiate School for Girls (Frances Mary Buss Foundation), having obtained the Platt Endowment Scholarship to study. She obtained a first-class certificate in the London Matriculation Examination in 1901.
Williams attended University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where she graduated with First Class Honours in French (1904) and German (1905). Following this, Williams spent two years (1905 to 1907) as a secondary school teacher in Portsmouth and Llandeilo. During this period, Williams studied towards and obtained an M.A.(Wales) by thesis on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s German epic poem “Parzival“.
During 1907 – 1910 Mary Williams held a Research Fellowship in the University of Wales. This enabled her to undertake a period of study at the National University of Ireland at Dublin which contributed to the success of her research into the origin of the Arthurian Romances. At the same time, she enrolled at the Sorbonne where in 1910 she obtained a doctorate from the University of Paris, D.es l (D.Lit), producing a thesis dealing with the relation of the Welsh story of Peredur to the French and German versions. The work focused on the influence of Welsh literature and tradition on French Arthurian Romances. With an extensive knowledge of French, Welsh, Medieval Welsh, German language and Literature, this scholarship became her passion and shaped her lifelong career.
- 1912-13 University of Manchester, Assistant Lecturer in French.
- 1913-18 University of London, King’s College. Lecturer in French Language and Literature.
- 1919-20 University of London, King’s College. Reader in French Language and Literature, Reader in Romance Philology, (Head of Department 1920).
During the First World War, Mary Williams also held numerous responsibilities in addition to her full-time academic post at King’s College. She taught French and German at London schools, delivered lectures for students reading for the new degree in Commerce in the University of London, and read with students preparing for the Honours B.Sc. degree in Economics and for the Diploma in Engineering. In 1915, the Academic Council of King’s College recommended that she be appointed a Reader of the University, but, owing to delay caused by the war, the Readership was not conferred by the Senate until January 1919.
In 1921 Williams was appointed to the newly created post of Professor of French Language and Literature in the Department of Modern Languages at University College Swansea, an early example of a woman achieving a professorial title. This was despite some opposition from established members of the College Council, in the face of gender inequality. In fact, one of her prominent contemporary supporters Victor Spiers said, “She possesses in an astonishing degree in the power of grasping detail, without losing the due sense of proportion – as women are apt to do – in fact hers is a man’s mind in the best sense of the word“. With Williams at the helm, modern language studies were able to thrive and grow into a separate German department in 1932. Williams continued to occupy the Chair of French until 1948.
In 1948 Williams was appointed Professor of French and Acting Head of Department at the University of Durham, a post she held until her retirement in 1952. She subsequently moved to London for a short period, before returning to Aberystwyth. Until 1975 Williams continued her association with University College Swansea as a member of the Court of Governors. The expanding university named a Hall of Residence in her honour in 1967.
Williams was a keen supporter of the National Library of Wales, depositing her research notes and papers in their archive. She died on 17 October 1977 in her ninety-fifth year.